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‘Tough tech’ VC firm The Engine expands to bigger offices in Cambridge

After sitting vacant for almost two decades, the various Engine startups are bringing new life to the 155,000-square-foot, MIT-owned building.

The machine room is a communal space, where companies can reserve time on a machine to make necessary pieces without having to outsource the work or invest in ownership of equipment they may use only sporadically.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

It’s a journey that has taken more than five years, but now it’s complete: The Engine, a venture firm and startup program founded by MIT, has moved into a former Polaroid building between Kendall and Central squares.

The move into 750 Main St. in Cambridge from two existing Engine spaces, one on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge and the other on Tyler Street in Somerville, began in earnest after Labor Day. Executives from MIT and The Engine celebrated the milestone at the new location, dubbed The Engine at 750 Main, on Thursday night.

After sitting vacant for almost two decades, the 155,000-square-foot, MIT-owned building is seeing new life due to the various Engine startups. The principals of The Engine were looking at the building as far back as 2017, a year after the firm launched, but wanted to take the time to get the setup right.

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The exterior of The Engine, a former Polaroid building that now houses multiple companies that share space and equipment.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

They invested in at least seven startups that year and raised about $200 million from investors. Those numbers have now grown to 44 startups — with roughly a third of them based at 750 Main — and more than $670 million under management among three VC funds today. The Engine will continue to maintain its 30,000-square-foot location at 501 Mass. Ave. as a satellite space, as well as its 42,000-square-foot spot in Somerville.

Prominent firms that are part of The Engine’s portfolio include Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which is developing a fusion-powered electricity generator, and Biobot Analytics, which tracks the presence of COVID-19 in communities through wastewater samples.

Katie Rae, chief executive and managing partner of The Engine, said having a physical place for startups to work was a crucial part of the original “tough tech” concept. It’s a bit of a catch-all phrase to capture startups based on science and technology that require access to expensive equipment — for lab experiments and fabrication, for example. They could include startups in clean energy, life sciences, robotics, nanomanufacturing, and infrastructure. What unites them all is that they make something physical that doesn’t just exist in software code.

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For its official “tough tech” definition, The Engine focuses instead on a shared mission: “transformative technology that solves the world’s most important challenges.”

The Engine chief executive Katie Rae. The Engine is a VC-backed accelerator/incubator space that just moved into a bigger complex in Cambridge at 750 Main St. to occupy 155,000 square feet.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

There is enough space at 750 Main to eventually host 80 to 100 companies or about 1,000 people (including The Engine’s roughly 35 employees). More than 50 startups are there today, a mix of companies in The Engine’s portfolio and others that also fit the tough tech definition. The facility, among other things, includes biology and chemistry labs that are up for rent by the bench or by the suite, a 3D printing lab, an optics lab, and a large machine shop.

“To see it come alive has been incredibly gratifying,” Rae said.

It’s important, Rae said, to have these startups in the same place, even if the specific technology they’re pursuing differs widely among the companies.

“They learn faster from each other,” Rae said. “They’re tapping into each other’s expertise in different areas.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.